Interiority and the American Identity

After reading Zunshine’s essay “Cognitive alternatives to interiority”, I was quite interested in how this historical contextualization of “mind-reading” relates to the identity of immigrants in Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. In describing a particular dinner scene with the Congressman and an English professor, the narrator describes most immigrants as “the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people” as they “know white people better then they knew themselves” (258). In Zunshine’s essay, this literary phenomenon is known as “third-level cognitive embedment” (153) and involves a fictional character’s ability to represent their own interiority as well as another character’s perception of their interiority. For the unnamed protagonist in The Sympathizer, this ability manifests itself as a survival technique for immigrants who are forced to decipher and present that which is most desirable for the white American, whether it be laughing at their jokes or refraining from talking in a foreign language while in their presence.

This particular moment of the text is a clear reflection of Zunshine’s belief that a character’s decision of whose mind should be reflected is an “ideological, culture-specific choice” (160). With that being said, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the reader’s involvement the process. Now confronted with a character whose representation of himself and other fictional characters is somewhat distorted or altered, it makes the reader’s job even more difficult in grasping (and trusting) the interiority of a particular character. It’s possible that this is another literary device used to reflect the post-Vietnam war era and shifting American identity, but the narrator’s inclusion that family members read their “anthropology notes” with “hilarity, confusion, and awe” (258) seems to suggest something else. Much like 18th-century fictional characters who used third-level cognitive embedment to elevate their social status, it seems like the protagonist views this ability as a source of power and subversion within the typical parameters of a Vietnamese immigrant living in the United States.

1 Comment

  1. Though theory of mind is a supposedly universal human trait, and thus in literature a viable technique for authors to humanize fictional characters, I think in this instance you point out Viet Thanh Nguyen is doing something more. The section on 258 illustrates linguist Mary Louise Pratt’s phenomenon of “the contact zone,” an imagined space wherein multiple cultures exist, and out of which certain literary forms emerge. In particular, the narrator describes his role as what Pratt would term auto-ethnographer: “Our field notes were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin, where our relatives read our reports with hilarity, confusion, and awe” (The Sympathizer 258). Not unlike in his role as spy, the auto-ethnographer-narrator must observe and conform to American culture so as to avoid being viewed with suspicion or distrust. Such strict expectations inevitably create the need for some outlet of relief, hence the reactions of “hilarity, confusion, and awe” received at home. I think in this passage Viet Thanh Nguyen pays homage to this exchange, and the literary art of the contact zone it inspires.

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